Today we have a thematic Aspiring Voices as I chat with horror writer Sam Witt about making a real living as a working writer, genre writing, and a great dissection of the horror genre’s past, present, and future.
Paul: You were, at one point, a working writer, correct? What were you doing at the time and how was that different from what you’re trying to do now?
Sam: I was indeed a working writer in the early 90’s, primarily churning words in the adventure game industry for Dungeons & Dragons. I wrote a blog post about how that all fell apart, but one thing I didn’t mention was just how different that type of writing was from what I’m doing now.
Everything I produced back in the day was work-for-hire, which means that the millions of words I cranked out weren’t really mine. They belong to the publishers who hired them out, and while many of those words are still earning a decent sum for someone they aren’t providing me with any residual income.
The other downside to this otherwise high-paid work was its relative anonymity. Authors weren’t given front-page billing, but were consigned to the interior of the book. Work-for-hire publishers are interested in building loyalty to their brand, not yours, which gave them an incentive to obscure the work of authors.
By contrast, the writing I’m doing now is mine. The horror serial I’m writing over at Juke Pop Serials is helping me to drawn in new readers who are interested in what I have to say. My blog helps me to connect with other writers and build a stronger bond with fans interested in how and why I write. My forthcoming novels, Breaking Grace and Bad Education, will benefit from the groundwork I’m laying now and should provide me with a stream of cash for as long as folks keep buying them.
That’s the one thing writers need to be mindful of—if you don’t control the rights to your work, you don’t control the rights to your future. All you have are words, so make sure they belong to you and don’t get sold to someone else on the cheap.
Paul: How important do you think the consideration of writing—or any art, for that matter—as a means to make a living is for an aspiring author? I get the sense that a lot of would-be writers get into it because they love the creative process and have romanticized notions of how that translates into a career. Is making money at writing a focus of yours, or would you continue writing fiction even if there was no chance of it ever being lucrative?
Sam: Coming from the perspective of someone who once was a starving author, let me just say, “Screw that noise.”
The creative process is awesome, but to really get the most out of it and have a life worth living, you need to be able to dedicate yourself to creation. At the moment, I have a very demanding day job that taxes my mental muscles every hour of the day. It takes a very concerted effort to ignite my brain fats in the dark hours of the night and put words on the screen. I love writing, but I’d love it even more if I didn’t have to do it on top of everything else on my plate.
That said, I wrote for years without making a single shiny penny off my work. Even when I didn’t intend to publish, I still sunk tons of time and effort into honing my craft and writing the best books I could.
I think that idea, that artists should create for the simple joy and illumination of creation, is one of those romantic ideals that gets kind of dangerous when it collides with the real world. When you can focus on your work, without having to worry about a day/night job, your work gets better. That’s an important thing to keep in mind – your work probably won’t ever be the best it could be if you let your brain be chained to two masters.
Short version: I want my writing to be the best it can possibly be. And that means I need to get paid for it.
Paul: The sense that I get is the fiction market may not necessarily be able to bear just any old determined writer who wants to make a living at it from a financial standpoint. Do you think it’s kind of a “any writing is still writing” kind of deal where once you can establish your writing as holding intrinsic value that you can spread it around enough through non-fiction, online, traditional publications, self-published, and fiction to fulfill the creative drive while still keeping the lights on and food in the fridge? Or does that run the risk of diluting the creative energy so that it becomes just another grind? Or is there a reliable path to get to the point where you’re only working on the projects that sustain the artistic urge?
Sam: I guess that’s the real question for anyone who wants to be a career writer. Can I support myself and my family above the ramen-and-cardboard-box level of comfort while writing fiction? I think most serious writers can, but only if they treat it like a job. You can’t write one book and hope that it will support you into your dotage. That’s not the way the game works anymore, and for most people it never worked that way at all.
You have to look at your writing career as this thing you do, this job that puts you in control of your own destiny. But that means you have to do the things that will make you successful, and writing novels or short stories or poems is just part of that. You ask about nonfiction and online writing and traditional vs. self-publishing, and I think if you want to do this, you have to be willing to embrace it all. But you also have to realize that these aren’t separate things, they’re just amorphous shapes you cram your writing into so readers can access it and, hopefully, purchase. They’re all part of the monument you’re trying to erect from these pages filled with your monkey-paw scribbling.
And that monument should look like you. Everything you write and put out there has to be a piece of the your presence, a breadcrumb that readers can follow to your other work. Which loops back around to the job part of this whole thing. To be successful as a writer, you have to write and publish a lot. The more your name is out there, the easier it is for readers to find you and pay you for your pearls of writerly awesomeness. This interview will drive people from your site to mine and maybe some of them will subscribe to Half-Made Girls. And it works the other way around—I’ll link and twitter and book my face about this when it goes up on your blog, so you get some eyeball share out of the deal, too. We both get to stick up our digital signposts that lead people back to our work. That’s how you build success.
Will everyone who sets out to be a working novelist be able to support themselves solely through selling novels? No, probably not. But those novelists who write consistent books and promote them through other types of writing—blog posts, interviews, articles they write, tweets, Facebook pages, forums—will have a much better chance than those who toss their books out like bottled messages and hope the digital tides will bring them readers.
Paul: It sounds like you’re talking about that whole personal brand thing you hear tossed around a lot. Do you think genre plays a factor in this equation? Do genre writers or even certain genres have an easier time with this kind of Lego-brick approach to writing?
Sam: In some ways, I think genre authors have it a little easier when it comes to plugging their brand into the machinery of the internet. You have all these forums and hashtags and Facebook pages where fans of the genre can get together. On the other hand, that means you have to be ready to let a little of your personal brand be eroded by the very thing that brings it visibility to your potential fans.
Horror, for example, is a genre with a hardcore, dedicated group of fans. But it’s splintered all over the place into these factions that don’t always play nice with one another. If you’re going to write horror, you need to understand how all these groups fit together and which ones will be good for your style. Fans of Paranormal Activity, for example, aren’t always the same people who love the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Fantasy is a little more cohesive from a fandom perspective, but even there you see a pretty stark divide between Tolkeinesque High Fantasy and the blood and mud set who worship at the twin altars of Martin and Abercrombie.
So, yeah, I think genre authors have it a little easier when it comes to personal branding than their ‘literary’ peers, but only if you’re a fan of that genre. Otherwise, you’re liable to go sticking your 110 volt brand into a fandom wired for 220 and you’ll get burned. Longtime fans can smell opportunistic poseurs from a thousand yards, and they know exactly where the torches and pitchforks are kept.
Paul: Do you think genre enthusiasts compartmentalize themselves like that, or is that more a product of online communities stirring their own pots just because that’s what you do online when you’re bored? And maybe more to the point, do you think authors do or should think along these lines when they interact with their potential audience? Does it go back even farther, to taking these kinds of subdivisions into account when crating the stories in the first place?
Sam: The divisions in fandom are driven, I think, by the creators of genre content. As a writer or filmmaker, we’re always looking for ways to set our work apart and give it a distinct voice. Before Saw, for example, that whole subgenre of movies didn’t really exist as a thing people could latch onto. The same is true when you look at fantasy fiction with something like Game of Thrones. You’re reading along thinking this is another high fantasy, and all of a sudden there’s some crazy incest thing and oh, my god, did they just push that little boy off the top of a tower?
On the one hand, creators are always trying to be unique, to build something new, something cool, maybe even something offensive. On the other hand, people naturally want to form tribes with like-minded individuals. You want to hang out, virtually or in your daily life, with people who share your interests. That can be good and healthy – there’s nothing quite as cool as engaging discussions with your friends about things you’re all passionate about.
But there’s also the risk of an echo chamber, where opinions feed on themselves and that can lead to a sort of elitist or exclusionary mentality that drives fans apart. As a creator, you have to be aware of that kind of thing going on in your tribe of followers and do your best not to feed into it. I don’t think creators can really stop it, but you can do your best not to encourage it.
Should authors think about this kind of stuff when they set out to write something new? I think if you’re aware of the trends in your genre, and you’re involved with the culture of that genre, then it’s already sort of embedded in your writerly DNA. If you dig splatterpunk, and that’s what you write, then you’re already targeting a specific kind of audience. You know those people, because you are those people, to some extent.
Where this can get you into trouble is when you start trying to profit from a hot genre. Five years ago, if you tried to hop on the vampire romance train without being a real fan of Twilight, you’d look like an idiot. If you were really lucky, you’d just end up writing something that didn’t appeal to the readers you were trying to reach. At worst, you’d end up pissing them off.
Write what you know and understand, where genre is concerned. If you want to write in a new genre, then dig in and do the footwork of reading and engaging with fans of that work so you understand your target audience. Otherwise, you’re going to waste a bunch of time and anger a lot of people who might otherwise have been part of your audience.
Paul: I wonder how much of the sub-classification of broader genres comes from that sort of “me too” mentality, though. I mean it’s not like Twilight was the first young adult book to incorporate paranormal and romantic elements, yet once it becomes popular you see “Paranormal Romance” sections pop up in bookstores. Saw was hardly the first psychological thriller with an unflinching camera eye and a grimy aesthetic and yet once it gains crossover appeal it gets a name so other movies can work within that narrowed set of constraints to mine the same audience. Or are these groupings entirely driven by the fans who, as you mention, are just looking for like-minded people to share their enthusiasm?
Sam: But isn’t ‘me too’ just another way of saying ‘word of mouth?’ When something catches the imagination and passion of people who then tell their friends about it, that ‘me too’ starts to snowball. Saw may not be the first torture porn to come along, but it was the first to package itself in a way that got people to really look at it and be willing to get their friends to look at it, as well. For better or worse, Saw became the standard bearer for that kind of horror. Paranormal Activity is another good example. It became The Found Footage Franchise, even though Blair Witch beat it to the punch. PA was more accessible and it captured the imagination of a large number of people in a way that Blair Witch didn’t, so it won that audience.
Paul: Yeah, that’s very true. So if it came down to it, as an author, would you rather have the book that was like nothing anyone had seen or done before but was maybe not all that commercially successful, or would you rather have the one that built off of someone else’s framework but really captured the public interest?
Sam: I’m a genre writer, so by definition I’m already writing inside the skeletons of what’s gone before. What would be nice is to tell good, solid stories that get people excited and make me enough money to take care of business. I think that’s all a writer can really expect these days, though it’s always possible you’ll strike gold with something really different.
Paul: When you were writing fantasy game material, was horror something you wanted to do but didn’t get the opportunity to explore, or were you happy to be focused more on fantasy at the time? When you transitioned to primarily writing fiction, what made you choose horror?
Sam: What’s funny is that I never really wanted to be a horror writer, but that’s how things have ended up. Even when I was writing fantasy games, there was always this dark streak that kept poking through. I wrote a book about fantasy psychics that ended up being filled with cannibals and blood rites and self-mutilation, but to me it all seemed to fit under that umbrella of fantasy. The nice thing about horror is that it’s very versatile – you can layer horror elements into just about every other genre.
Old school fantasy—Howard, Lieber, Clark Ashton Smith—was always very much infected with the horror virus. That’s what I cut my teeth on, reading those pulp fantasy novels and anthologies in my grandfather’s shed where he kept his library. I’m five years old and Conan’s dealing with serpent cults and elephant men and eldritch gods, so my view of genre was tainted with this lurking horror at a very young age. Even The Hobbit, to me, was horrific. Giant spiders? Freaky elves driven half-insane by their years spent locked away in Mirkwood? Weird old Gollum living in the dark, whispering riddles as he goes mad with his longing for the Ring? All of that was just freaky as hell to me.
I also grew up in a very isolated rural community where local legends were all devils and demons and ghostly riders. Everyone I knew was naturally superstitious and even mainstream religion was viewed as a literal, real thing. Horror got into my blood early and it’s what I’m best at writing.
So when you ask why I chose to be a horror writer, all I can answer is that when I sit down to write, that’s what comes out.
Paul: You know, that’s very interesting. I’ve never really considered it that specifically before, but horror is mostly just taking the already dark elements in other genres and giving them the spotlight (or maybe just turning out a lot of the other lamps). I suppose you could also intentionally layer some new, macabre focal points into existing constructs as well. Do you feel like horror has come a long way from the pulp stuff of the early and mid 20th century, or is there a lot of familiarity in what you write and what is being put out right now to those old serials in your grandfather’s shed?
Sam: That’s exactly right. Horror is the ultimate genre modifier. People complain that horror is sort of vanishing as a genre, but really it’s just sliding its tentacles into other niches. Urban Fantasy, for example, has really become a popular roost for horror stories. Chuck Wendig’s got Miriam Black, Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim stories, these are horror tales where the hero just happens to survive. They have horrible lives, and everyone around them pays a terrible price, but they’re a little more upbeat than than the splatterpunk books from a couple decades back.
In that sense, the sort of integration horror has accomplished, the genre has come a long way since the pulps. Things that would have been treated as straight up horror stories are now considered much more mainstream and have gained much bigger audiences than were possible in the past. Horrific elements are grafted onto everything, which gives horror writers a pretty big ballpark to play in. You can write anything from romance to noir and still find room to throw in some horror.
On the other hand, I think this has stunted horror’s growth a little bit. The genre plus monsters type of horror makes for some fun books, but a lot of it is just grafting what Lovecraft already did into a modern setting and a slightly different milieu. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t really grow horror as its own thing.
Where I see the differences in the genre as a whole is the move away from the other toward the self and the familiar. The monster isn’t some cosmic horror or inbred hill folk looking for breeding stock. It’s the family down the street that turns to human sacrifices to survive the economic collapse. It’s bored teenagers with knives stalking you through your comfortable suburban home. It’s the idea that you’re prey for society’s predators and to survive, you might have to become one of the wolves. The monsters are closer now than they used to be.
I think today’s horror is more optimistic, too. Victims fight back. Even in the face of really hellish badness, the characters go to war, they don’t run screaming. I find that to be a really hopeful face of horror, that today’s voices raise up against the bad things and our heroes try to defeat the guy with the chainsaw, not just flee to survive. Blood’s going to get spilled, but not all of it has to belong to the heroes.
Paul: [laughs] I, for one, would love to see a new wave of romance/horror hit the market. Bodice-and-flesh ripping, anyone?
Sam: Bodice-and-flesh ripping—man, there’s an image that deserves a book cover. Someone should bust out Photoshop and get to work on those old Fabio covers, stat.
Paul: Describe the best book you’ve read recently. Especially if you’ve got one that typifies this new, optimistic/defiant or the-monsters-are-us aspects of modern horror.
Sam: I’ve been reading the Wool books most recently and was surprised to find that the Shift books, especially, are pretty much straight-ahead horror stories about men dooming the world in a misguided effort to do the right thing. They’re sort of the extreme end of what I was talking about; not to give too much away, but you get a look at people making choices that will bring about the end of everything they hold dear, either in pursuit of their own agenda or in a vain attempt to reveal the dark machinations of their enemies. It’s powerful stuff, and by the time you get to the end of Shift, there’s a lot more horror than science fiction.
Pines, by Blake Crouch, had the same kind of vibe to me. People going to extremes to salvage a tiny piece of their world, when things have gone completely off the rails in the rest of the world. That’s another one where I can’t really discuss the plot much without spoiling the whole thing, but well worth the read.
I also finished reading the two Games books by Jeff Menapace, which are all about normal people preyed upon by psychopaths. You’re on vacation, everything’s going fine, and then someone invades your life and starts tearing it apart at the seams. Both books are lightning-fast reads, but the ideas in them will stick with you well after the final page. They say a lot about the cost of fighting back and what happens when the sheep becomes the wolf. Really fun, thought-provoking stuff.
Raised in a small town in the Midwest, Sam grew up to be a gold miner, car salesman, insurance agent, court reporter, game designer, technical writer, and IT serf, none of which were quite able to destroy the fiction-writing virus percolating in his veins. Sam currently lurks in a secret bunker below the DFW metroplex, along with his wife, their remaining child, a dog, and a ferret.
Sam spends his time working on his horror serial (Half-Made Girls), an unrelated horror novel, wasting words on twitter, and reading everything he can lay his hands on. Check out his site and follow him on Twitter @samrwitt.